Revolution

The Guillotine Mystique

The French Revolution has long inspired progressive radicals ready for change at any cost.

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Last summer, when the short-lived "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" in Seattle renamed itself the "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest," one protester explained to a reporter that the acronym CHOP was a tribute to the Reign of Terror in France more than 200 years ago. "What happened to the people who did not get on board with the French Revolution?" he asked, to which the assembled crowd responded, "CHOPPED!"

This scene was just one manifestation of the guillotine fad that has been sweeping America's resurgent progressive left. #Guillotine2020 is an actual hashtag on lefty Twitter, mostly (if hyperbolically) dedicated to the malfeasance of Republicans, rich folks, and other baddies. DIY guillotines have been popping up at protests, including ones outside the White House and the Washington, D.C., mansion of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Jacobin magazine, one of the radical left's most prominent media outlets, has been selling a guillotine poster captioned "Some assembly required"—even though the publication claims its name is a reference to the Haitian Revolution and its "Black Jacobins," not the French revolutionary faction that perpetrated the Terror in 1793–94.

So far, this revolutionary playacting has been more annoying than terrifying: Much like far-right memes about "helicopter rides," a reference to extrajudicial executions via helicopter drop, it's about trolling, not killing, the enemy. But it still signals an embrace of bloodthirsty rhetoric—and of ideological homage to one of history's bloodier leftist dictatorships.

The new guillotine chic also speaks to the French Revolution's enduring hold over our cultural imagination. The five-year period from the fall of the Bastille in July 1789 to the fall of the Jacobins in July 1794 has shaped our political language in more ways than we realize. It gave us the terms right and left in their political sense, based simply on the seating of deputies in France's first National Assembly. It also gave us terror in its political sense, and with it the words terrorism and terrorist. It pioneered violent progressive utopianism and effectively birthed modern conservatism, via Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. It even influenced fashions, pioneering short haircuts on women in tribute to guillotine victims—who had their hair shorn before execution—in the Terror's aftermath. (Choker necklaces, apparently, have a similar origin.)

More important, the French Revolution has inspired radical movements for two centuries—notably Russia's Bolsheviks, who explicitly claimed the Jacobins as their forefathers. Now, a resurgent American left has revived its romance not only with Soviet Communism (even "Uncle Joe" Stalin has a Twitter fan club!) but with Jacobinism—not a good sign for where modern progressivism is headed.

From today's vantage point, the French Revolution may look like a distant costume drama mostly of interest to history buffs. But look closer, and its relevance to the current moment is striking—whether it's the paranoid style, the sentimental idealization of the downtrodden, the quest to remake human nature and reset history, or the view that morality is determined by rank in an oppressor/oppressed hierarchy. ("How tenderly oppressors and how severely the oppressed are treated!" scoffed Jacobin leader Maximilien de Robespierre in response to those who deplored the Terror's cruelty.) One can read a May 1793 letter to revolutionary legend Georges Danton from American citizen and French National Convention member Tom Paine deploring "the spirit of denunciation that now prevails" and think of parallels to current alarm about "cancel culture."

The stakes in 1790s France, of course, were much higher. Less than a year after that letter was written, the two men met in the Luxembourg prison in Paris—Danton on his way to ultimate cancellation, Paine awaiting the same fate, which he would narrowly escape. But the echoes are undeniable.

Revolution

The French Revolution is often imagined as a broad, simple morality play: A decadent aristocracy and a tyrannical monarchy lord it over downtrodden peasants and commoners; Queen Marie Antoinette dismisses reports of the poor clamoring for bread with "Let them eat cake"; the people revolt and bring down the Bastille's grim dungeons; royals and aristocrats go to the guillotine; revolutionary leaders become the new tyrants; eventually, they too meet their downfall.

The reality was much more complicated. As Tocqueville later argued in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, revolutions generally happen not when things are at their worst but when there is tangible progress—enough to raise expectations for a better future but not enough to meet those expectations. Toward the end of the 18th century, France was rapidly liberalizing—economically, socially, and politically. The new era was symbolized by Voltaire's triumphant return to Paris in February 1778, shortly before his death, after 28 years of exile. Even the Bastille was already slated for demolition, and some of its former prisoners had published memoirs about their ordeal to celebrity acclaim. On the minus side, there was the constant crisis. The effects of droughts, poor harvests, and cattle disease were exacerbated by heavy taxes from which the aristocracy and the clergy were mostly exempt. The treasury was depleted not only by profligate spending and Louis XV's imperial adventurism but by Louis XVI's aid to America's rebel colonists. (One underappreciated historical irony is that French involvement in the American Revolution, motivated by the desire to kneecap the British monarchy, helped fuel France's own revolution—both by popularizing ideas of liberty and by driving the national debt through the roof.) The deregulation of markets spurred innovation but also increased economic insecurity, and fluctuations in the prices of basic goods were commonly blamed on the machinations of wicked speculators.

It's hardly a stretch to see parallels to America's present moment, in which turmoil follows several decades of unprecedented strides in civil rights for racial minorities, women, and gays—as well as the depressing reality of pandemic, debt (due in part to foreign wars), and widespread perception that ordinary people's economic problems stem from being screwed by evil elites.

The clamor for reform and the urgent desire to raise taxes led to the king in May 1789 calling on the Estates-General, an assembly representing the three estates—clergy, aristocracy, and commoners—to compile grievances and make proposals. In June, the delegates of the commoners rebelled, chafing at their inadequate representation compared to the other two estates, and declared themselves a National Assembly representing the entire people. When Louis XVI tried to rein them in by shutting down the assembly hall on the pretext of carpentry work, the mutineers moved to a tennis court near Versailles, joined by most of the clergy's deputies and by some of the nobles. The king caved.

The events of July 14, 1789—the "official" date of the revolution's start—began as another episode in this ongoing conflict. On July 11, Louis XVI had fired the popular liberal finance minister Jacques Necker; many worried this was a prelude to a shutdown of the Assembly. The alarm was magnified because, fearing riots, the king had ordered troops into Paris, most of them Swiss and German mercenaries. This sparked quick-spreading rumors that the foreign soldiers were planning a massacre.

The Assembly's armed supporters headed to the Bastille, wanting both to get their hands on the store of ammunition inside the fortress and to strike at a hated symbol of despotism. The rest is history. (In a weird historical footnote, those anti-Bastille passions may have been further inflamed by a troublesome inmate who was moved to an insane asylum a few days before the rebellion, but who until then had regularly shouted out the window, through an improvised megaphone, that the prisoners in the fortress were being slaughtered. It was the Marquis de Sade.)

In August, the Assembly abolished all feudal privileges, established full legal equality for all adult male citizens (the ladies would have to wait another century and a half), issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and set about writing a Constitution. The monarchy limped along for three more years of push and pull between the increasingly radicalized revolutionaries and the resistant royals. Finally, in August 1792, insurgents invaded the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family had been forced to move from Versailles. The king and queen were placed under arrest. Shortly afterward, the National Convention—having been elected to replace the Assembly—formally abolished the monarchy. (Louis the XVI, henceforth known as Citizen Louis Capet after the medieval French dynasty to which he actually wasn't related, would be guillotined for treason in January of the following year; Marie Antoinette, or "the widow Capet," in October.)

September 22, the birthday of the French Republic, would become the first day of Year One in the new revolutionary calendar, which also replaced the old months with new metric-based ones named after nature's cycles (Thermidor for heat, Germinal for germination, etc.). This dramatic move predated the "Year Zero" of the Khmer Rouge by nearly 200 years—and anticipated the mindset of many American progressives, who, though they may not want to literally reset time, do want to cancel America's slaveholding Founders.

It was not even Year Two before things got to the point summed up in a famous phrase, apparently first uttered in March 1793 by Convention member Pierre Vergniaud: "Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its own children." ("The left eating its own"—a phrase often applied these days to purges of alleged racists, misogynists, or transphobes—is a tradition that began as soon as there was a left.)

Two months after Vergniaud spoke those prophetic words, an angry mob organized by Jacobin radicals invaded the Convention to force his expulsion and that of his fellow Girondins, an informal bloc of moderates who mostly hailed from the southern Gironde region. Two years earlier, the Girondins had been the Assembly's center-left. Now they were the conservatives, hated by Paris militants for rejecting price controls amid a food shortage and for having waffled on the execution of the former king. Power was now in the hands of the hardcore Jacobins (named after their club's location in the Rue St. Jacques, or St. Jacob Street).

From late July, Robespierre and two close allies, Georges Couthon and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, were in full control of the 12-member Committee of Public Safety. Twenty-two Girondins were executed in October 1793, among them the journalist Jacques Pierre Brissot, a onetime prisoner of the Bastille and founder of continental Europe's first anti-slavery society, Les Amis des Noirs ("The Friends of Blacks"). Other Girondins who had fled Paris were killed or committed suicide while on the run.

Casualties of the anti-Girondin purge included the pioneering feminist and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges, who had penned a bold Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. Paine, a Girondin ally who had argued for sparing the former king's life in recognition of his assistance to the American Revolution, was also arrested.

By the time the Girondins met their deaths, the revolution had reached its bloodiest phase, known as the Reign of Terror. The Law of Suspects, passed in September 1793, gave local revolutionary committees the power to arrest anyone who "by their conduct, relations or language spoken or written have shown themselves partisans of tyranny or federalism"—i.e., greater regional autonomy—"and enemies of liberty." At least 200,000 people were arrested around the country; some 17,000 were guillotined, and about 10,000 died in prison. That doesn't include the tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands massacred in rebellious provinces, especially the Vendée, where some historians believe reprisals were nothing short of a genocide—if that term can be applied to extermination directed at the population of a region, rather than an ethnicity or religion.

In Nantes, suspected counterrevolutionaries, many of them priests, monks, and nuns, were tied up and loaded on barges that were then sunk in the Loire River. In Lyon, the condemned were slaughtered first by cannon grapeshot blasts—which often left mangled, still-living bodies to be finished off with sabers or pistols—and then by more conventional firing squads. Even Robespierre thought that was a bit much and recalled the commissars in charge, Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Joseph Fouché. (Those two, sensing peril to their own necks, would eventually help engineer the anti-Robespierre coup that ended the Terror. Carrier still went to the guillotine. Fouché, the revolution's ultimate survivor, later served as chief of police under Napoleon and, briefly, under the restored Bourbon monarchy.)

In spring 1794, purges began within the Jacobin ranks. First fell the ultraradicals, known as les Enragés ("the Rabid"), and their ringleader, Jacques René Hébert, who wanted more terror, more de-Christianization, and more war on the rich. Robespierre despised the Hébertistes as amoral atheists with no respect for property or propriety. Their sworn enemies, "the Indulgents," led by Danton and Camille Desmoulins—onetime radical icons who now wanted a Committee of Clemency to review the cases of detainees—followed in less than two weeks. Desmoulins, whose fiery speech in a Paris café had helped launch the attack on the Bastille, shouted himself hoarse on his final journey, in the frantic hope that he could rouse the people to defend their tribunes. Danton, resigned to his fate, at one point reportedly bellowed, "You'll follow me soon, Robespierre!" (Narrator: He did.)

Desmoulins, whose famous September 1789 pamphlet, The Lamppost's Speech to Parisians, excused the summary mob executions of several "enemies" after the fall of the Bastille, was one of the many revolutionaries who discovered the hard way that cheerleading for violence has consequences. (To his credit, Desmoulins shrank back from those consequences before they affected him directly: He was shaken by the lynching of royalist pamphleteer François-Louis Suleau, his ideological adversary and ex–school friend, in August 1792 and was consumed by guilt after the execution of the Girondins, whom he had viciously trashed in a pamphlet.)

Hébert was another. A prototypical "dirtbag leftist" who had ridiculed Terror victims in obscene tirades spiced up with witty euphemisms like "the national razor," "playing the hot hand," and "looking through the republican window," he showed far less fortitude than his targets when it was his turn. ("We thought he'd have more courage, but he died like a fucker," observed one of the jeering spectators, according to a government agent's report.) In a Hollywood-worthy postscript, the two men's widows, Lucile Desmoulins and Marie Hébert, were promptly arrested for a nonexistent plot. They bonded in prison and went to the guillotine together a few days after Danton and Desmoulins.

As summer rolled around, the carnage accelerated—especially after the passage of the Prairial Law, which created a broad new range of vaguely defined counterrevolutionary crimes (such as "slandering patriotism" or seeking to "weaken the purity and energy of revolutionary principles"). Defendants before the Revolutionary Tribunal were no longer allowed to have counsel or call witnesses; jurors were to render verdicts based on their "moral sense," and the only options were death or acquittal. In about four out of five cases, they chose death.

The guillotine's toll in Paris spiked from an average of six people a day to an average of 27. The executions were becoming unpopular with the crowds, especially after an 18-year-old working-class girl's attempt to confront "the tyrant" Robespierre while allegedly carrying two small knives was blown up into an assassination plot for which 53 people were guillotined en masse. The purported conspirators killed that day included a wailing mother with her teenage son and daughter and a young housemaid who looked about 14.

Meanwhile, an actual plot against Robespierre was being hatched within the Convention, spurred by whispers of another big purge coming any day. (The Prairial Law had stripped deputies of immunity, allowing their arrest without impeachment by their colleagues. The Convention had tried to reverse this provision, but Robespierre and Couthon jammed it through.) On July 27—9 Thermidor in the new calendar—a pre-planned mutiny erupted in the Convention, with Robespierre denounced as a tyrant and a murderer. The session ended with the arrest of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon.

Freed by their supporters and holed up at Paris City Hall, the Hôtel de Ville, Robespierre and his companions hoped that the masses would rise in their defense. But the masses were done with the Jacobins, not only because of the Terror but because of continuing privations: The price controls, or "maximum," had extended from bread to numerous other goods, leading to rampant shortages and wage freezes. (When the Robespierristes rode the tumbrils to their doom the next day, hecklers in the crowds shouted, "Foutu maximum!"—"Fucking maximum!")

Troops loyal to the Convention quickly retook the Hôtel de Ville. On 10 Thermidor, Robespierre—his bandaged jaw shattered by a bullet, perhaps from a botched suicide, perhaps from a soldier's shot—faced the Revolutionary Tribunal with Saint-Just, Couthon, and 19 others. The death sentence was swift.

The new rulers, most of whom were themselves radical Jacobins, had no intention of adopting a more moderate course. While the mass executions stopped, most political prisoners were not released until months later. But the backlash against Jacobin rule had acquired its own momentum. The Reign of Terror was over, and the exhausted Republic descended into a disarray from which, eventually, Napoleon would emerge.

Destruction

Why did the French Revolution go so dramatically wrong?

Burke, who supported the American colonists but took an implacably negative view of the French Revolution early on, argued that while the American cause was rooted in the traditional liberties of Englishmen, the French one championed the abstract, universal, and therefore inherently unworkable "Rights of Man." But this is a dubious distinction: The Declaration of Independence is just as steeped in liberal universalism as is the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were hardly less radical in sweeping away traditional hierarchies.

But Burke's disapproval was also driven by the French revolutionaries' embrace of mob violence, and in that he was much closer to the mark. The revolution's first acts of barbarism happened on its very first official day. After the Bastille's surrender, its commandant, Bernard-René Jourdan de Launay, was hacked to death while being led to the Hôtel de Ville; the superintendent of the Paris markets, Jacques de Flesselles—accused of "treason" because the information he gave the insurrectionists about where to get weapons turned out to be wrong—was shot to death on the building's front steps; and the two men's severed heads were paraded around on pikes. A few days later, two other officials, Joseph Foullon and Louis Bertier de Sauvigny, accused by the Paris rumor mill of plotting to cause a famine, were dragged from their homes, viciously beaten, and hanged from lampposts.

Perhaps worse than the violence itself was many respectable revolutionaries' willingness to condone it or explain it away as justifiable anger. After some Assembly members voiced dismay at the lynchings, Antoine Barnave, a lawyer and orator, rebuked his "tender-hearted" colleagues: "Was this blood, then, so pure that one dare not spill it?" (Later, Barnave himself would join the ranks of the "tender-hearted." His story ends exactly the way one would guess.)

This creepy notion of "impure" enemy blood had a lot of currency. It even made it into the lyrics of "The Marseillaise," whose refrain ends: "March on, march on, that blood impure/Our fields may irrigate." From there, it's only a short step to viewing the counterrevolutionary as Untermensch.

From early on, some of the radicals were openly calling for large-scale bloodshed. In 1790, Jean-Paul Marat, later a Jacobin cult figure, wrote that at one point "five or six hundred heads would have been enough" to save the country, but because the enemy had been given time to plot it would now take five or six thousand. "But even if it need twenty thousand, there is no time for hesitation," he concluded. Later, Marat reportedly upped the score to 200,000. (He did not live to see the Terror's peak: In July 1793, a 24-year-old Girondin sympathizer named Charlotte Corday, armed with a large bread knife and with her own ideas of republican heroics, turned the same calculus on Marat himself—later telling her judges that she "killed one man to save 100,000.")

In Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, his 1989 history, Simon Schama claimed that "the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count." That has been vigorously debated, but there is certainly a sense in which the revolution's logic led to what came next. The lynchings of 1789 escalated to mass murder in 1792, when some 1,500 prisoners held in the Paris jails were butchered over three days in the notorious September massacres. The Revolutionary Tribunal was founded in response to these events, ostensibly in the hope of making such extralegal excesses unnecessary by dealing swift and harsh justice—but with procedural safeguards—to the Revolution's enemies. We know how that worked out.

To some extent, the different fortunes of the American and French Revolutions were the product of the two countries' very different circumstances. For Americans, King George was across the ocean, and the royal administrators the rebellious colonists had denounced as corrupt usurpers of their liberties were as well. For the French, the monarch and his minions were right there in their midst—and hostile European monarchies were just across the border.

The paranoia that spurred revolutionary violence in France was often directly related either to the threat of war or to actual wartime conditions; thus, the frenzy driving the September massacres was whipped up by rumors that the prisoners were in cahoots with the invading forces of the Austrian-Prussian alliance. It should be noted that France was hardly the victim of one-sided foreign aggression: That invasion itself was a response to France's declaration of war on Austria in April 1792, a move the revolutionaries saw both as a preemptive strike and as a patriotic endeavor that would unify France and export la liberté to other countries. In one of the Revolution's many tragic ironies, the war's biggest cheerleaders were the Girondins, later victims of a radicalization partly driven by the war.

Obviously, American independence was forged in war, and there was no shortage of wartime paranoia on these shores, either. (There was also more violence between Loyalists and Patriots than our narratives often recognize.) But by the time Americans were building their system of government, the nascent republic faced no serious external threat—a very different situation from France.

Religion was another factor. America had a history of pluralism and had no dominant church; in France, the revolutionaries ostensibly embraced religious tolerance, but they were also taking on the Catholic Church as a powerful and oppressive institution. A law passed in 1790 on the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" required priests to swear allegiance to the state and to be elected; it also banned monastic life. Priests refusing to take the oath were subject to increasingly brutal persecution, as were nuns who continued to wear the habits or to maintain secret religious communities (including the "Martyrs of Compiègne," 16 nuns and lay sisters guillotined in July 1794 and immortalized in Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues of the Carmelites). The anti-Christian persecution, which included rampant pillaging and desecration of churches, exacerbated civil conflicts and alienated peasants. It also placed the revolution on the side of religious repression rather than religious liberty.

Add to this the anti-market animus. The Jacobins were not socialists; their ideal citizen was the self-employed artisan or vendor. But Schama convincingly argues that they were anti-capitalist, insofar as they saw wealth as morally suspect and commerce as corrupt; their confiscatory "revolutionary taxes" on the rich reflected not only wartime necessity but hatred of what modern-day revolutionaries would call "the 1 percent."

There was, finally, a fundamental difference between the French idea of liberty and the American one. In the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, power flows from the people to the state. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, "the principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation," a superentity that figures prominently in French revolutionary rhetoric. (A few years later, one early political theorist of the Revolution, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, would argue that the sacralization of "popular sovereignty" was an essentially "royalist" idea, "a conception destructive of liberty.") The French Declaration also states that "the law is the expression of the general will," invoking the dangerously fuzzy, quasi-mystical, Rousseauist notion of a political hive mind.

Partly because of this outlook, French republicanism never developed a strong commitment to the separation of powers. The Declaration of the Rights of Man mentions it as essential to legitimate government (perhaps reflecting Thomas Jefferson's input). But once the old executive branch was quite literally decapitated, it was never replaced. And the Constitution of 1793 entrusted judicial review to a Court of Appeals whose members were to be appointed annually by the legislative body. The principle of checks and balances did not mesh with the ideal of national unity.

Rousseauist patriotic mysticism reached its height during the rule of the Jacobins, whose ideology was a mix of sentimentalism, puritanism, and death cult. The Terror may have started out as a practical (or paranoid) response to danger, or as an attempt to channel popular vengeance into a regulated outlet. But it eventually became its own raison d'être: an ideological/spiritual cleansing, a sacrificial shedding of "impure blood." It was, the Swiss historian Siegfried Weichlein writes in the 2011 book Terrorism and Narrative Practice, "part of a vision for a new society and a new man"—one founded on "virtue, which was to be achieved by terror."

No one exemplified this mentality more than Robespierre, the archetypal homicidal idealist who had started his career as a staunch opponent of capital punishment.*

Robespierre's grand vision was laid out in a February 1794 speech to the Convention titled "The Principles of Political Morality." The goal of the Republic, he declared, was to fulfill the true human potential that tyranny had warped: Selfishness, frivolity, greed, sensuality, vanity, and social graces would give way to magnanimity, wisdom, reason, and love of goodness, truth, and glory, ushering in "the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness." Until then, "the despotism of liberty against tyranny" would have to do: "If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror. Virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, severe, inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue." Talk of mercy, Robespierre stressed, was dangerously misguided: "To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty."

Meanwhile, Saint-Just made it clear that the reach of virtuous terror would be very wide: "There is no prosperity to hope for as long as the last enemy of liberty breathes. You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it." And, chillingly: "What constitutes a republic is the total destruction of everything that stands opposed to it."

While the Reign of Terror certainly wasn't bloodier or more brutal than many earlier episodes of organized violence and repression in European history, it was the first in which people were systematically murdered in the name of a progressive vision, complete with Robespierre's Orwellian flourishes about the despotism of liberty and the cruelty of mercy. Assessing the French Revolution in 1955, the Israeli historian Jacob Talmon called Jacobinism an experiment in "totalitarian democracy." The term "totalitarianism" would not come into existence until the 1930s, but in 1795, on the heels of the Reign of Terror, Sieyès uncannily warned that a republic that demanded total devotion from its citizens was no longer a "re-publique" ("common matter") but a "re-totale."

Inspiration

The Soviets saw the Jacobins as their forerunners, despite the French rebels' attachment to deism and private property. Vladimir Lenin referred to Robespierre as a "Bolshevik avant la lettre"; the Russian's first decree on "monumental propaganda" in April 1918 included Robespierre on the list of 12 great revolutionaries whose statues were to be erected by the October Revolution's first anniversary. The monument was unveiled on November 3 in a major Moscow park, where a visiting French communist hailed Robespierre as an "honest and devoted revolutionary" slandered by the bourgeoisie.

Three days later, the concrete statue collapsed into a pile of rubble. Some blamed foul play, but the more likely explanation was shoddy construction.

While the Robespierre monument was never rebuilt and a proposed monument to Marat did not happen, the Soviets honored the Jacobins in plenty of other ways. There were Robespierre Streets and Marat Streets in several cities, including Leningrad and Gorky. Later, the Soviet biography series Fiery Revolutionaries, intended for a general audience and especially for young adults, featured the lives of Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, and even Danton, though the latter was chided for turning to "counterrevolution" at the end of his life.

In 20th century French historiography, debates about the French Revolution were often a battleground for clashes between pro-Jacobin Marxists such as Albert Soboul and anti-Jacobin liberals such as François Furet—who also argued that treating the Jacobins as a proxy for Bolsheviks was reductive and misleading.

It would certainly be misleading to treat the French Revolution as a mirror for 21st century American politics. Apparent similarities can be deceptive. For instance, when the revolutionaries of 1789 assailed "privileges," including ones many of them personally possessed, they were talking about very specific legal advantages that could be (and eventually were) abolished by the stroke of a pen. Today, the concept of "privilege" employed by progressives refers to a far more complex and elusive system of benefits.

And yet reading about those events of more than 200 years ago, one cannot help being struck by parallels. The 18th century was its own Information Age, with unprecedented access to media, thanks to strides in printing technology that enabled mass production of cheap newspapers and pamphlets. It was also an era of rapid shifts in social norms. Pre-revolutionary France was plagued by incompetent leadership and polarized between a deeply religious rural population and secularized urbanites. A large portion of its elites flaunted their egalitarian ideas without any intention of giving up their status.

A more disturbing shock of recognition is provided by the key role of paranoid rumors and conspiracy theories in the French Revolution's events (though, in fairness, paranoia in times of crisis is hardly unique to the French Revolution). In those pre-internet days, rumors—of impending massacres and assassinations, "famine plots," bandits sent to torch villages—took longer to travel, but a mass panic known as La Grande Peur, or "the Great Fear," still managed to go viral in the French countryside in July and August 1789, sparking unrest that hastened the abolition of landlord privileges. Social media may not have existed, but a bedraggled man who galloped down the road screaming that armed thugs were burning, raping, and slaughtering in the next village would do just as well—and who needs out-of-context videos when a herd of cows can be mistaken for bandits on the move?

Revolutionary Paris, too, always seemed to be lurching from panic to panic. "Then, the phantom enemy was on the right (those secret gangs waiting to cut the throats of supporters of the National Assembly)," Schama tells me. "The politics are reversed now, with the phantom Satanists, Antifa, etc., conjured up to arm the ultra-right." But today's left has its own paranoid tales, starring an assortment of Russians, bots, and missing mailboxes.

And even without guillotines, observers of the American left in 2020 will see themes reminiscent of the French radicals of the 1790s—from the romanticization of the violent mob to the sentimental belief in the fundamental innocence of the oppressed to the speed with which yesterday's heroes can become today's reactionaries. Substitute "progressive" for "republican," and Schama's description of the Jacobins rings true today: "They remained obsessed by the holy grail of republican purity. Since it would, by definition, remain forever out of reach, its paladins would constantly see themselves confronted by impure soldiers of darkness and crime who stood between them and their prize and who had to be cut down if the Reign of Virtue were ever to be realized." Saint-Just's declaration that indifference equals treason is echoed today in the rhetoric of activists like Ibram X. Kendi, who says that it's not enough to simply not be racist; if you're not actively anti-racist—an ally in their cause—then you're complicit in white supremacy.

This doesn't mean that social justice activists, or even the guillotine-toting revolutionary wannabes in Portland and D.C., are Saint-Justs and Robespierres in waiting. But the Jacobins' story should be a timely reminder of the dangers of romanticizing righteous violence, demonizing enemies, and fetishizing ideological purity.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article contained a quote from memoirist and Terror survivor Aimée de Coigny which was likely a forgery.

NEXT: COVID-19 Didn't Break the Public School System. It Was Already Broken.

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  4. “Jacobin magazine, one of the radical left’s most prominent media outlets, has been selling a guillotine poster captioned “Some assembly required”—even though the publication claims its name is a reference to the Haitian Revolution and its “Black Jacobins,” not the French revolutionary faction that perpetrated the Terror in 1793–94.”

    Right, they did not name themselves for the most well known group to call themselves “Jacobin” and make that word infamous. Can one be edgy and craven at the same time?

    1. Common to Lefties is their lying to hide their truly tyrannical goals from average people.

      If they didn’t, Americans would never give them any political power.

      I for one am glad that calling people out as Commies still brings rebuke from Americans. At least many Americans know how bad Communism is.

      1. But far too many Americans, especially young adults, do NOT know how bad communism is. They have simple-minded dreams of cash-free, egalitarian utopia, and absolutely zero knowledge of the horrific history of communism in action.

        1. They are learning when they hang with Antifa and BLM criminals.

        2. it’s not cash-free they want, it’s free cash

      2. “Those who do not know history are probably also not doing well in English or math”- P.J. O’Rourke

    2. It isn’t like they get off the hook even if true that they chose the Black Jacobins. After gaining control in Haiti, the newly freed and in charge factions sent death squads house to house and killed all white people they came across… including babies in cribs. In about 4 months several thousand people were murdered… The reason? Claims that they did not support the revolution.

  5. Republicans want to be mostly left alone with some religious parts of the GOP wanting religious laws and other socially conservative uses of government.

    Libertarians want to definitely be left alone with small and limited government used for expensive large tasks like national defense, enforce property rights, and border security.

    Lefties don’t want YOU to be individuals so they want to use government to control nearly everything. Government is to be used for war (to control others), police to control citizens domestically, propaganda to control the “hearts and minds”, and Elites who get special privileges for controlling others.

    1. Well some libertarians respect property rights. Half of them here want china to freely steal property without any pushback.

      1. I would say that as you find out more positions of those “Libertarians” we find that they are not Libertarians at all.

        unreason staff, case in point.

        1. “Libertarianism” is a stalking horse for Marxism and traitors.

          Classical liberalism is dying the slow death it was always destined for. Reason whines and complains about the “Reign of Terror”, but if this country were to string up Marxists on lampposts, what a shock! You’ll have a free society! You know, the kind that Reason and “libertarians” always say they are aspiring for! Then they wonder why no one takes them seriously.

          It’s because a libertarian would snivel and whine that “rights are being violated.”

          Anyone who thinks it’s a ok for American dollars and property to be gobbled up by foreigners, and letting foreign people live and work here willy nilly is no friend of freedom.

          Anyone who thinks Marxists should have free speech (or any kind of freedom), is no friend to freedom.

          Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
          War against the Marxist is Peace for America
          Your Ignorance is Our Strength

          1. Pretty sure Storm Front is over there to the right from here; you should find it.

            1. Ah yes, I’m “racist” because I’m so staunchly anti left. How progressive of you.

              Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
              War against the Marxist is Peace for America
              Your Ignorance is Our Strength

              1. He’s old and stupid, he didn’t have the appropriate reaction in his rolodex.

          2. anyone who calls resisting politically motivated mass murder “sniveling and whining” is someone who should already be locked up awaiting sentencing.

          3. Yeah, the original Reign of Terror worked out so well. France was totally free and respected everyone’s rights after that.

            Marxism is a threat to freedom and everything good. But it isn’t the only one.

            1. Oh yes it is.

          4. So your problem with the Reign of Terrror isn’t really the whole reigning of terror so much as it is that your clique wasn’t the one in charge.

            At least your open about wanting to be just as horrible as the left.

            1. If my clique had been in charge in the Reign of Terror, there wouldn’t be a left wing in the Western World.

              That’s worth a few broken skulls. Pussy.

      2. Some libertarians respect property rights… By saying that web site owners OWN their OWN web sites, and that whining crybabies should NOT run to Government Almighty, to tear down Section 230, so that whiners and crybabies can micro-manage said websites, which do NOT belong to said whiners and crybabies!

        1. Now do the “mostly peaceful” protests and all the destruction of property that went with it that was excused by ENB and others for months.

          1. Because insufficient denouncement equals endorsement, right?

            1. Admittedly, I didn’t read everything written here over the summer, but I saw at least a few articles that weren’t merely “endorsement by insufficient denouncement”, but actual endorsement true.

              1. I don’t read everything either, but I didn’t see anything endorsing violence. I did see plenty of comments accusing Reason of supporting rioters by supporting protestors, based upon the false premise that every protestor is a rioter. But I never saw “Yay, riots! Burn it down!” from Reason.

                1. “But I never saw “Yay, riots! Burn it down!” from Reason.”

                  Me neither. But clearly you own stock in the straw man factory.

                  1. It’s called exaggeration. Ever heard of it?

                    1. Yes. It’s the basis for most of the dumb shit you say.

                    2. It’s called bullshit, and it’s about all you ever drag in here.

                  2. Never mind. You’re another one of the many retards here who takes everything everyone writes as being completely and totally serious.

                    “Hurrr durrr he meant everything word for word hurr durr nobody exaggerate or uses hyperbole whatever that means hurr durr I’ll attack everything they say because they mean every word hurr durr”

                    1. sarcasmic
                      November.3.2020 at 9:55 am

                      And you can’t write a single comment without some personal insult. Grow the fuck up.

                    2. It’s always everyone else’s fault with you guy.

                      You’ve been bitching that people don’t “get” you for a decade.

                      Newsflash: It’s you not us.

                2. “I don’t read everything either, but I didn’t see”

                  Yoy admit you don’t read everything so shut the tuck up.

            2. Because excusing equals endorsing, right? You’re so broken you can’t even honestly respond to a post that’s only a single, simple, sentence.

              1. I never read anything excusing violence. Granted I don’t read every single article, but nothing I read excused property destruction.

                And you can’t write a single comment without some personal insult. Grow the fuck up.

                1. “I never read anything excusing violence. Granted I don’t read every single article”

                  Then shut your dicksucker

            3. Silence is violence.
              Violence is mostly peaceful protesting.
              Looting is an equity tax.

              (Things I’ve learned this year.)

              1. We’re rounding the turn on covid.

        2. Respect for private property even in the form of websites is good, but why should those website operators be granted special privilege that others do not possess, like the privilege written about in the article?

          When the government writes laws that distort the market in ways that begin to resemble monopoly protection, the businesses so protected are *already* losing their “private” status. Become an effective part of the government, and be subject to control by the mass of the public, or remain private and retain all the protection of private property, but don’t try to claim both.

          1. I’m not totally sure of the exact direction of your argument here, but SOME people here (at least one, “John”) have argued that, since there has been at least one (several?) case(s) of hardcopy rags (newspapers) sued FOR THE WRITINGS OF OTHERS, namely letter-to-the-editor writers (it was all well and good to “John” that SOME people got punished for the writings of OTHER people), then the proper fix was to perpetrate / perpetuate this obvious injustice right on over to the internet domain!

            This is like arguing that the “fix” for a cop strangling to death, a black man (Eric Garner) on suspicion of wanting to sell “loosies” is, not to STOP the injustice, but rather, to go and find some White and Hispanic and Asian men as well, and strangle them, as well, on suspicion of wanting to sell “loosies”! THAT will make it all “fair”!

            1. “I’m not totally sure of the exact direction of your argument here, but SOME people here (at least one, “John”)”

              Then why are you responding to perlhaqr, shit eater?

              1. “Become an effective part of the government, and be subject to control by the mass of the public, or remain private and retain all the protection of private property, but don’t try to claim both.” That’s what perlhaqr wrote!

                It smells to me of, let’s us voters gang up together, and decide for ourselves, who has “effectively become part of the government”, in our own minds, and then TAKE OVER ALL THEIR SHIT! The power of Government Almighty (given to us as voters) allows us to do this with a clean conscience!

                (The same dynamic applies to declaring the laborers of some foreign nations to all be “slaves” in our Highly Esteemed Estimation, so, we can TAX THE SHIT OUT OF all the USA citizens who want to trade freely with that them thar evil ferriners!)

                What could POSSILBLY go wrong with THESE ideas?

                1. “It smells to me of”

                  If you can smell people’s post you need to get your meds adjusted. Olfactory hallucinations are warning signs of an upcoming breakdown.

                2. R Mac is losing the argument, so R Mac takes a gutter-dive! What a surprise!

                  1. I’ll tell you what would go wrong. Absolutely nothing.

                    Section 230 does not benefit you. It does not benefit me. The sooner it goes the sooner we’ll have a social media where good, honest patriotic truths can take precedence over Marxist lies.

                    Criminals don’t deserve freedom. Facebook and Twitter are criminal organizations run by criminally minded people. Stop sticking up for criminals.

                    Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
                    War against the Marxist is Peace for America
                    Your Ignorance is Our Strength

                    1. ALL Power to Mark Question! All Hail Mark Question!

                      Mark Question ***IS*** Freedom and Liberty! Mark Question sees NO problems with this mentality, and so NOTHING could go wrong if All Will Only Obey Mark Question!

                    2. Freedom and Liberty are worthless if you won’t fight to protect it. In any case, they are both over valued in today’s society.

                      Also, you are deluded if you think my suggestions are less preferable to the situation we have now.

                      Marxists are poised to take over our society, and people like you will be the first to go for being “insufficiently progressive.”

                  2. Which argument am I losing? The one you’re not having with perlhaqr, or the one you’re having in your head with John?

                    1. You’re losing the argument about whether or not you ever have facts or logic to present, or whether you always drag the discussions down into the gutter, with unfounded accusations about shit-eating, etc.

                      Surprise, surprise, about the empty-headed wonders around here? They can’t intelligently discuss politics, ethics, or morality, so they literally talk and post about shit instead!

                    2. So one in your head. Got it.

                      P.S. Orange Man Bad SQRLSY!

                    3. “You’re losing the argument ”

                      You’re not making any argument you’re juat shitting everywhere.

                  3. “R Mac is losing the argument”

                    No shiteater, this is Abuse.

                3. As an anarchist leaning libertarian, I’d far prefer to dump the government entirely. But that’s not happening, so yes, if businesses are going to cuddle up with the folks who claim a monopoly on violence, you’re darn tootin’ I want a say in how they operate.

                  They don’t get to have the playing field tilted in their favor by the state and then hide under the shield of “private property”. One or the other. I’m not willing to just *accept* “heads I win, tails you lose” without a fight.

                  1. “As an anarchist leaning libertarian, I’d far prefer to dump the government entirely. But that’s not happening, so yes, if businesses are going to cuddle up with the folks who claim a monopoly on violence, you’re darn tootin’ I want a say in how they operate.”

                    Agreed! Business-Government-Almighty collusion is WAAAY too powerful! Businesses getting Government Almighty to “protect” them from foreign competition (to the detriment of consumers) is just ONE example! (IP laws gone to extremes is anther, IMHO; see http://www.rocketslinger.com/Near_Universal_Defensive_Publication/ for a good laugh about this).

                    Me, I am 99.999% on board with “Section 230” as one of the few things that Government Almighty got RIGHT for once! And you?

                    1. 230 on paper is fine. The issue is not 230 being good or bad… it is a question of “are the firms in question still acting in a way that qualifies for the otherwise sou d protections 230 offers?” That question is a lot different than if 230 is good or bad. You seem to think that 230=good means nothing needs to be changed. But 230’s goodness is not in question and no one is asking to change 230 itself. The change being sought is to stop applying it where it (debatably) doesn’t apply.

      3. “Half of them here want china to freely steal property without any pushback.”

        Er, what? Oh yeah, you don’t argue in good faith so that accusation really doesn’t matter.

        1. Neither do you, King of the Strawmen.

          1. Wrong, but that’s ok. Believe whatever gets you off.

            1. sarcasmic
              November.3.2020 at 9:55 am

              And you can’t write a single comment without some personal insult. Grow the fuck up.

              1. Until you can argue an idea or topic, instead of arguing against the person, I will consider you to be a gnat buzzing around my head. Like Jesse or Nardz or that creepy guy from Georgia. Nothing but an annoying insect.

                1. OK, don’t grow up. Be a whiny adolescent shit your entire life.

                  1. His lack of insight into his hypocrisy continues to amaze me.

                2. “ Until you can argue an idea or topic, instead of arguing against the person”

                  Hi hypocrite.

        2. Fuck you, Marxist libertarian.

          China shouldn’t have any American Property. Period.

          If China wants wealth and dollars it can create it’s own instead of leeching off America like a parasite.

          This is why libertarianism is a joke

          Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
          War against the Marxist is Peace for America
          Your Ignorance is Our Strength

          1. Pretty sure it’s you who are the joke. A really stupid joke. You’ll fit right in here.

            1. Yeah, we’ll all be laughing when the Marxists put people like you and me in reeducation camps, or execute us for wrongthink.

              Grow the fuck up. Would you rather a Marxist boot on your throat, or someone else’s boot on theirs? Those are the only real choices.

              1. I’m not sure if you realize that the implication of your position here is that Marxist ideas are *so good* that they can’t be countered by pro-market speech.

                1. And that the problem with Marzism isn’t the inhumane behavior… it is just the wrong people being inhuman to the wrong targets.

                  1. Well, there’s that, but I think it says more that he’s apparently so unsure of the superiority of his philosophy that he thinks it needs to be imposed at the barrel of a gun.

                    There’s a reason why Marxists need to use violence to achieve their goals. It’s not because their ideas are awesome, but rather because they suck out loud. I happen to think more highly of the free market than that.

                    1. Of course it needs to be imposed at the barrel of a gun. That’s how political systems are fucking created.

                      You just argued against the American Revolution, buddy.

                      So go ahead and whine and cry about markets more, my guy. People like us will be doing the actual work of stopping the Marxist slime, instead of hand wringing about “rights” and “freedom” and all the shit that created this situation IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE!!!!!!

                2. How’s that going? Countering Marxism with pro-market speech?

                  Not very well, you say? Why could that be? Oh, right, because Marxists have captured the market!

                  Oh well, then we should just go home and let them exterminate us. We wouldn’t want to do anything to interfere with the sacred marketplace, after all. America is not important enough to do that.

    2. you left out the lefty desire to control what you eat and drink (sugar, salt, etc.) to protect you from yourself (but really to keep costs down for their ill-advised socialized medical care plan), except for higher income better educated liberals, who are free to consume sugar-laden coffee drinks at high end coffee shops, since it isn’t that low class diet soda.

      1. Good members of the proletariat never get fat. They starve to death.

  6. “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
    – Marie Antoinette

  7. From today’s vantage point, the French Revolution may look like a distant costume drama mostly of interest to history buffs.

    Or it may look like it lasted up to WWII and even beyond, occasionally being tamped down by the likes of Napoleon and De Gaulle. “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” makes for a nice slogan, like “To each according to their need, from each according to their ability” or “Love your neighbor as yourself”, but it doesn’t work in the real world nearly as well as “Keep your fucking hands to yourself.” France is still trying to square the circle of socialism with individualism and it can’t be done.

    1. “Perhaps worse than the violence itself was many respectable revolutionaries’ willingness to condone it or explain it away as justifiable anger.”

      It’s almost like this could have been written about the summer of 2020.

    2. Also, I quite like “keep your fucking hands to yourself” as a slogan. Maybe we should put it on the currency. It could be the twenty first century version of Franklin’s “Mind your own business”. 😉

      1. I’m still partial to “Don’t tread on me” but adding some new phrases now and then wouldn’t hurt.

        1. “Don’t tread on me” is definitely a classic.

          I *really* need to get my design for the updated “You were warned” version completed and embroidered.

          1. It needs to be changed to “Tread on the Marxists”

            This whole shit show is happening because the Western world wants to cling to this notion that individuals are special snowflakes that should be allowed to say what they want, worship how they want, no matter how crazy or destructive.

            The fact that Marxism and Islam haven’t convinced libertarians that freedom is overrated shows just how mind achingly dumb libertarianism is.

            1. This bit got old real quick.

              1. It bears repeating because it’s a point that’s often lost on the readers and publishers of this magazine. It bears repeating because you libertarians always claim to be against Marxism, against a big overbearing government, against the SJW disease, but when push comes to shove you won’t commit to anything that would actually solve those problems.

                You believe Muslims should have the right to worship their idols, you believe Marxists should have the right to publish and spread their corrosive ideas, you think dirt poor foreign savages with substandard IQ should be allowed to live and settle here, you think businessmen and corporations should hire, fire, buy and sell at will without any consequences…..

                …..I mean, is it any wonder that you guys are in dire need of a simple, but repeatedly stated point to get the idea to stick?

                Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
                War against the Marxist is Peace for America
                Your Ignorance is Our Strength

                1. The list of people who get to enjoy freedom seems to be rapidly diminishing.

                  Every tyrant is a libertarian in his own house.

                  1. Poor Tony. You hate freedom and Libertarianism AND you’re a tyrant.

                    1. Everyone is a tyrant. Just a lot of people *coughcough* libertarians *coughcough* are too chicken shit to admit and embrace it.

                      Tony at least is intellectually honest enough to say so. You people, on the other hand, talk about how awesome Trump is, how awful immigrants are, how awful lefties are, and yet, somehow, still subscribe to a philosophy that has done everything in it’s power to enable the Marxist disease.

                      Libertarianism is just Marxism lite. It is anti Trump, anti-border, and anti-patriotic. Dump it.

    3. Think of liberty, equality, and community as the apexes of a moral triangle, and then plot the position of any and all personal or political systems.

    4. As I’ve said before…the mob got Robespierre too. You cannot control a mob. Allowing one to go unchecked is a terrible idea.

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  9. Good to see a Cathy Young article. Excellent as usual.

      1. bad troll, try harder

  10. The radical leaders becoming the victims of their more radical associates (the left eating its own) has obvious parallels today–with Pelosi against AOC and her associates being obvious examples. Now that effectively ending your rivals through elections and cancel culture is so effective, it’s no longer necessary to actually guillotine them. The white, blue collar, middle class, on the other hand, is armed and dangerous.

    If the Democrats take both the White House and the senate, I’d like to think Biden and Pelosi would turn to moderate Republicans for support against the radicals in their own party. After they pack the Supreme Court, come after our gun rights, and implement the Green New Deal, however, I’m not sure how much of a difference there will be between the radicals and the moderates. It will probably be over issues like regulating or nationalizing social media and election reform.

    Kamala Harris was elected to the senate in an election where no Republican was allowed on the ballot. You could choose between Harris or another Democrat. Everyone expects a big pro-Republican reaction in 2022, and I would expect the radical Democrats to pursue disenfranchising their opposition in various ways. In Wisconsin, the Democrats kicked the Greens off the presidential ballot, so that if you want to vote against Trump, you’re forced to vote for Biden. Trump won Wisconsin by fewer votes than were cast for the Greens in 2016. If the Democrats get rid of the electoral college, it will strip the Midwest of much of their influence.

    Point being, they’ll be coming after their enemies hard. The bourgeoisie have already been looted with the tacit approval of both the Democratic party and the news media. If all this leads to some future Napoleon, it may be because foreign adventures of liberation are a legitimately superior alternative to the left ravaging our domestic economy in the name of social and environmental justice–which the Democrats are sure to do if given enough rope.

    It seems obvious, but I’m not sure people really understand the obvious implications: If the Democrats take both the White House and the senate, and even the establishment Democrats want to disarm us, implement the Green New Deal, and pack the Supreme Court, there won’t be anything standing between them and us but our willingness to fight for our rights.

    This American Life was interviewing progressive, non-traditional gun buyers–suburban women and African-Americans–this week about why they broke down and decided to buy a gun ahead of the election. The show seemed to be trying to make it out like the non-traditional gun buyers were afraid of what Republicans would do if Trump lost, but that wasn’t the way it came across to me. What seemed clear to me was that these gun buyers understood what was likely to happen–and how average Republicans were likely to react–if and when the Democrats implement their agenda. What does the progressive leadership know about Republicans that average American progressives don’t know?

    The bourgeoisie in America is armed–like the couple who brandished guns in defense of their home against protesters. That isn’t a threat. It’s just a fact. I saw the business owners of Koreatown band together in defense of their stores in the early part of the Rodney King riots. If the elitists in the Democratic party aren’t careful, their revolution will spark domestic strife that will make Portland look like a picnic. I sure hope Trump wins. I don’t think the Democratic leadership has any idea what will happen when they step over the line, and I don’t think they can stop themselves from stepping over it.

    1. “I don’t think the Democratic leadership has any idea what will happen when they step over the line, and I don’t think they can stop themselves from stepping over it.“

      The foot that will step over the line is already in the air and moving forward. If they sweep this election the momentum of the entire body will be impossible to stop.

    2. If they pack the court, we’ll see the second constitutional convention called within a month, and they will not like the new rules.

      -jcr

      1. I think they’ll have a free hand for at least two years.

        It’s like shooing a grizzly bear in the chest. Even if your bullet pierces the grizzly’s heart, it has a good ten seconds of rage to maul you before it finally dies.

        If a grizzly mauls you for ten seconds, you might as well not have bothered to shoot it.

        If the Democrats have two years to maul us, I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to the way things are now. It’ll be like the FDR administration but worse.

        1. I don’t think the Dems can maul us for two years, even if they take the Senate and Presidency. For one, the Supreme Court has no been packed yet; and for two, they won’t pack it. There are enough Americans and even Democrats who abhor the idea that it would take too much political capital, and the backlash in 2022 would gut them and repack the court against them.

          But aside from all that, there is not enough money, no enough of the resources that money represents, to even begin implementing all their spendy dreams. A trillion for student loan forgiveness, a trillion for free college, a trillion for free day care, a trillion for free years-long maternity (and paternity!) leave, and that’s the easy stuff, not the hard stuff like tens of trillions for abolishing fossil fuels and the rest of the Green New Deal.

          I repeat, they cannot implement their spendy platform, it is not possible, even if they embrace Magical Monetary Theory and just print $10T dollars. It is not a question of desire, it is a simple question of reality.

          They will try, and they will find it impossible, and they will face a 2022 backlash which will cripple them for a decade.

          1. “There are enough Americans and even Democrats who abhor the idea that it would take too much political capital, and the backlash in 2022 would gut them and repack the court against them.”

            That’s what they said about ObamaCare.

          2. “But aside from all that, there is not enough money, no enough of the resources that money represents, to even begin implementing all their spendy dreams.”

            The $2 trillion Biden wants to spend on the Green New Deal is less than the $3.5 trillion the Democrats passed in stimulus a few months ago!

          3. “But aside from all that, there is not enough money, no enough of the resources that money represents, to even begin implementing all their spendy dreams.”

            If the Drug War and the Iraq War have taught us anything, it’s that there is no government program so expensive, so destructive, and so futile that the government won’t spend trillions of dollars continuing to perpetuate it over the course of decades.

            1. You still don’t get it. There is not enough money, nor enough resources, available. It is physically, literally, practically, impossible.

              Imagine they want a space program to build a moon colony in one year. It cannot be done. Their dreams are of the same quality.

              1. The $2 trillion Biden has promised to spend on the Green New Deal in his first four years is not impossible–not because you say so and certainly not when the interest rate on a ten year note is yielding less than 1% interest.

                1. Printing the money won’t make the labor and capital they theoretically represent materialize out of thin air.

                  Yes, they might very well Zimbabwe our currency. That’s not the same thing as actually *achieving* the goals of the GND.

                  1. It’s not about “printing money”.

                    It’s about selling treasury bills.

                    You sell the treasury bills to raise the money, and the fact that interest rates are so low tells you that there is still a huge appetite for that debt out there. They may be able to sell those bonds and only need to pay less than 1% of the amount of money they raise on ten year treasury notes. There isn’t any good reason to think they can’t spend the $2 billion that Biden is promising to spend.

                    1. Two trillion!

                      Typo.

                    2. That debt will roll over, eventually, and they’ll either pay it out and do nothing, or they’ll pay the debt out and roll it over.

                      Eventually, it’s coming out of your future paycheck–one way or another.

        2. “If a grizzly mauls you for ten seconds, you might as well not have bothered to shoot it.”

          It was worth it if my (notional) wife and kids don’t get mauled too.

          1. Shoot it between the eyes.

            1. Headshots are hard, aim for center of mass. Realistically though, if I’m shooting a grizzly bear, I’m not just shooting it *once*. I’m going to slide lock. Maybe I’ll Mozambique it, but dumping 16 rounds of 10mm into the torso and pelvis seems likely to at least slow it down.

    3. Kamala Harris was elected to the senate in an election where no Republican was allowed on the ballot. You could choose between Harris or another Democrat.

      This is a common complaint about California’s “top two” system, but irrelevant; if a Republican has been on the ballot, he’d still have lost by a wide margin.

      1. The purpose of the change was to exclude Republicans from the ballot.

        1. It didn’t matter. Republicans don’t get elected either way. It was a pointless cosmetic change.

          1. You don’t know that Republicans could never win a statewide general election again. We just know that it’s hard to beat Democrats to get on the ballot because the public employee unions pretty much control the nominating process. That was the point of the reform–to keep Republicans off the ballot.

          2. You make a “reform” to keep Republicans off the ballot, and you say that’s okay because Republicans can’t win elections anyway–do you know how full of shit that sounds?!

            I think you’ve internalized someone’s marketing.

            And the point is that this is the kind of thing we can expect from the Democrats in the two years following a Biden victory. They will do anything and everything they can to effectively disenfranchise their opponents’ constituencies.

            This is also why they want to bring DC and Puerto Rico into the union–so they’ll gift themselves another four Democratic senators for the foreseeable future.

            1. I’ve always thought that if you were designing a system from scratch, that kind of election wouldn’t be a bad idea. Why should parties have anything to do with who appears on a ballot anyway?
              I agree that for practical reasons it’s a bad idea right now in a state like CA where one party dominates so much.
              Perhaps a better idea would be not to give parties any special place in elections. Have the same standards for anyone who wants to be on the ballot and don’t not party affiliation on the ballot.

          3. A cosmetic change in California but not a cosmetic change when the billionaires in CA are bank rolling Top Two initiatives in other states. We kicked those assholes in the teeth twice in Arizona. Thankful folks in this state were wise to what was happening. Even more of a relief with the CA refugees fleeing to AZ but still voting for Democrats.

      2. Here in Florida, amendment three allows for open primary elections.
        Only the top two vote getters will proceed to the general election.
        This is a way to have The biggest and most Democrat counties, Dade and Broward counties, put two Democrats on the ballot and completely shut out the Republican Party.
        It is a terrible idea and we can only hope that it is voted down

        1. Yes, it’s a terrible idea. The public employee unions largely control the nominating/primary process. Incidentally, this is why district attorneys and city councils tend to defer to law enforcement unions, too.

  11. “progressive radicals”

    I absolutely agree that guillotine imagery is in poor taste. I wish progressives would stop using it.

    However, today’s progressives are, in practice, pro-billionaire. That’s how we know not to take their “eat the rich” posturing seriously. Progressives want to replace Drumpf with Biden, which is exactly what most American billionaires want. And progressives want unlimited, unrestricted immigration, which billionaires (like Reason.com’s benefactor Charles Koch) have been advocating for years.

    #VoteDemocratToHelpBillionaires

    1. What happens when the AOC wing of the party effectively guillotines Pelosi for being too moderate–and Joe Biden retires to leave Kamala Harris in charge at the White House?

      How pro-billionaire will the progressives be then?

      1. Depends on which billionaires.

        1. I don’t think so.

          At that point, AOC and Kamala are in charge of that money.

          AOC and Kamala are the billionaires.

  12. “What happened to the people who did not get on board with the French Revolution?” he asked, to which the assembled crowd responded, “CHOPPED!”

    I look forward to the part where the guillotinists turned on their own for not being revolutionary enough. But I bet they forgot that part of the lesson.

  13. “#Guillotine2020 is an actual hashtag on lefty Twitter, mostly (if hyperbolically) dedicated to the malfeasance of Republicans, rich folks, and other baddies.”

    I could have sworn I watched Jack Dorsey tell the Senate such language was not allowed on Twitter. I wonder how this example snuck by the moderators.

    1. Because the average American has some sympathy with the sentiment “the rich are crooked”, but will shit themselves with horror when you change “rich” to “Jews”.

      This is exactly why free speech rights need to be curtailed.

      Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
      War against the Marxist is Peace for America
      Your Ignorance is Our Strength

        1. Thanks for proving my point. A society where Marxists and their enablers are reduced to slaves (or done away with altogether) would be a thousand times more prosperous and free then anything your pie and the sky classical “don’t call it diet Marxism” liberal beliefs could create.

      1. Yeah, buddy. Freedom is slavery. Fuck off.

  14. It would be fun to watch today’s leftists attempt a power grab and then destroy each other en masse. It would be horrifying to everyone else of course but I would not mind seeing it happen just to strip today’s generation of their blinders about socialism and leftism.

    Anyway it’s a tribute to the republic that we got Trump at least one term and 3 justices plus so many other federal judges in place. I think the left maneuvers will result in failure eventually. Whether they win this election or the next they will always keep running up against the firewalls constructed to stop tyrants.

    1. “they will always keep running up against the firewalls constructed to stop tyrants.”

      That would be a Constitution, which is why they want it to mean what they want it to mean.

  15. “Saint-Just’s declaration that indifference equals treason is echoed today in the rhetoric of activists like Ibram X. Kendi, who says that it’s not enough to simply not be racist; if you’re not actively anti-racist—an ally in their cause—then you’re complicit in white supremacy.

    This doesn’t mean that social justice activists, or even the guillotine-toting revolutionary wannabes in Portland and D.C., are Saint-Justs and Robespierres in waiting.”

    Or, it might, actually.

    Schama is an idiot or just a liar if he thinks Antifa doesn’t exist. 35C3, the 2018 Chaos Communication Congress in Leipzig — a large and long running European hacker con — had an enormous Antifa banner hanging in the main hall. There are absolutely people out there who take it seriously from the perspective of *supporting* it.

    Interesting article. If anything could have convinced me to throw my vote to Trump instead of either the LP or Constitution candidate, it was this.

    1. Indeed, although I don’t think Trump can reign them in at this point and may be pouring oil on the fire, like Louis XVI. Will be morE entertaining anyway to see the the AOC wing tearing apart the moderate wing of the democrat party for a short time, until one day you get a knock on the door to profess your allegiance and renounce your privilege and racism

    2. Whether Antifa exists or not is irrelevant. The ideas associated with it are what need to be suppressed. Do that, and you’ve solved most if not all the problems plaguing this country today.

      Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
      War against the Marxist is Peace for America
      Your Ignorance is Our Strength

  16. I don’t know if we will see a return to mass beheadings but I can say that some people I’ve known for a long time who were previously “moderate” democrats have lost their shit. For example, I was scolded by one of them the other day for pronouncing Kamala Harris Camel-a instead of Kahm-ah-Lah. Because that’s how the far right pronounces it. No, I’m not making this up!

    1. And here I thought it was “ke-MAH-la”.

      But I absolutely agree with you that some people I used to think of as mostly sane if ultimately misguided have gone utterly full-on batshit.

    2. I just call her “Willie Brown’s whore” and avoid the pronunciation problem altogether.

      -jcr

  17. I rarely comment here but for what it’s worth: The standard method for judicial execution in Nazi Germany …was Guillotine.

    Anti-Nazis; actual, real, honest-to-god-antifa like Sophie Scholl in Germany or Franz Jägerstätter of Austria paid with their heads for having moral intgerity and guts to stand up and stand out rather than hide behind a mask and violence.

    1. That’s news to me. I thought they just shot their victims.

      -jcr

      1. Guillotine was popular throughout Europe, not just France:
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillotine

      2. The Guillotine was the standard method for judicially-sanctioned execution of defendants found guilty in a civilian court. Of course there was other methods and tools deployed on a horrific scale.

        My point was merely that 1) Fetishisation of any deadly object for political purposes is subject to one’s broader ignorance of history and;

        2) Regardless of whether you are left or right, it’s disgusting to deploy metaphors of retributive violence.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:People_executed_by_guillotine_by_Nazi_Germany

      3. I thought they hanged them with piano wire.

        1. I think that was a one-off for the generals who tried to blow Hitler up at Wolf’s Lair.

          -jcr

    2. I know the Nazis did use guillotines, but as to being the most common means, I’d like to see some kind of cite. I’d think a pistol would be the most common, just from expediency.

      1. From that wikipedia article:

        Nazi Germany used the guillotine between 1933 and 1945 to execute 16,500 prisoners, a figure which accounts for 10,000 executions between 1944 and 1945 alone.

      2. Expediency is also about sustainable processes….

        “During his service, Reichhart worked to accelerate the execution process and make it “less stressful” for convicted people. Beginning around 1939, he had the tipping board (bascule) on the guillotine replaced by a fixed bench. The condemned was held by his assistants, without restraint devices, until the hatchet blade was dropped. Reichhart abolished the black blindfold; instead, one of his assistants held the convict’s eyes closed. These measures shortened the duration of the actual execution to 3–4 seconds ”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Reichhart#National_Socialism

    3. Comparing the Nazi’s to the French Revolutionaries shows how ignorant of history you are.

      The Nazis had a fundamentally negative attitude toward the French Revolution.

      Marxist Freedom is American Slavery
      War against the Marxist is Peace for America
      Your Ignorance is Our Strength

      1. From my reading of his comment, he wasn’t comparing the French revolution to the Nazis. He essentially was saying “you know who else used a guillotine?”

        The nature of the two political movements didn’t really come into the comment at all.

  18. As for the age-old question of why America’s revolution was so free of terror compared to the French, I think it is because Americans were independent in spirit, used to doing things their own way — smuggling, ignoring the stamp act, tarring and feathering royal appointees, starting new communities across the forbidden Appalachians — while the French had such an overbearing aristocracy that they had no tradition or custom or habit of thinking for themselves, only of following orders, that when they were let loose and got control, they had no self-restraint.

    This matches well with the current troubles. The leftists want to be told what to do, they want more government, they want less choice (who needs 23 kinds of deodorant?), and when they get loose and in control, they go bananas because they have never learned self-constraint; while rightists are used to wanting less government and more self-control, and know how to behave in public.

    In general terms, of course. But it is part of why Biden does not scare me as much as he does some: he will be devoured by his betters, and they will devour themselves in short order. We will not get a Napoleon to restore order because when the left has devoured itself, the rest of us know how to behave in public.

    1. I think it’s because Americans were trying to preserve their society against a German usurper and a parliament who were trying to change the rules.

      -jcr

      1. I think that the Americal revolution had a much better outcome than most revolutions because it didn’t seek to transform society in any radical way. It sought to change the system of governance, but leave social structures intact.
        Even if it seems like social structures need radical change, it rarely works out well when you try to do it quickly.

    2. Rightists know how to behave in public? Their fucking President is the most vulgar human I’ve ever seen.

      1. Poor Tony. Tony lies a lot.

        Trump is the best President in US History, thanks to Lefties.

        Tony have never “seen” Trump but Orangeman is worse than Hitler, who Tony has never “seen” either.

      1. Why, yes. Yes it is.

        One must be prepared to do morally repugnant things to successfully battle scum like you.

        1. Defacing Jewish graves is a way to successfully own the libs?

          These conservatives, they just know how to behave in public better.

          1. We’re not looting walmarts

            1. Just defacing Jewish graveyards and running campaign buses off the road.

              1. Poor Tony. Biden staffer as at fault for hitting that pickup.

                Young Lefties do graffiti.

          2. Remember fake crimes like Jessie Smollett.

        2. Fuck off dude. You are just the mirror image of antifa. Using violence to enforce ideological purity will never work and will not lead to good things.

          1. I suppose Antifa running around claiming to oppose fascism was bound to spawn some actual fascists at some point.

            This is also known as “two assholes fighting”.

            1. Incorrect. Antifa wants to destroy civilization. I want to save it.

              Mirror image my ass.

              I suppose now you guys are gonna start trotting out the Horseshoe Theory, which is the flat earth theory of political science.

  19. it’s about trolling, not killing, the enemy.

    Just give them time…

    1. There’s canceling, and then there’s Canceling.

  20. The main difference between the American secession and the French Revolution is the type of person involved. Americans were colonists and fronteirsmen who were largely self sufficient and resourceful and in many ways educated. The French mobs were mostly dirt poor illiterate Parisians and a handful of intellectual types who couldn’t control them.

    1. Americans also had the English traditions of Common Law that respected property rights. France had no such thing

  21. Excellent article, thank you. And I love the quote:

    “We thought he’d have more courage, but he died like a fucker,”

    It’s like something being said in 21st Century Portland. The past does indeed speak to us.

    1. He was a fucker, but they fake-dropped the blade on him 3 times before they finished him off.

      1. And laughed uproariously each time they did it. “Did you see the look on the fucker’s face that time?! Haw haw haw [with comic French accent, of course].”

  22. #Guillotine2020 is an actual hashtag on lefty Twitter

    Also known as “Twitter”.

  23. I would suggest that a key difference between the American and French revolutions grew out of their distinctly different view of human nature. One optimistic; the other realistic.
    Madison famously said, “Men are not angels.” It was from this principle that he devised government. He had this realistic view of human nature; that men were capable of great but also evil acts. And so power, held by men, had to be restrained, divided, split since again men, not being angels, would misuse that same power.
    The French revolutionaries believed in the perfectability of men and that if power was fairly distributed all of the injustices – which emerged not from men but the wrong men holding power – could be eliminated.
    This different view of men, of how they behave, of how they are, leads to two completely different ways or arranging society. One restrains men, the other liberates them.

    1. Shorter:

      The American Revolution was based on principles of liberty.
      The French Revolution was based on principles of equity.

      Sartre, Foucault and Derrida were not random accidents, they were cultural byproducts.

      1. I think perhaps most important is that the American revolution did not seek to transform society into something new. Every revolution ever that sought to do that led to terror and death. I can’t think of any examples from history where deliberate, rapid and radical change to social institutions didn’t end up as a complete horror show.
        I must be becoming conservative in my advancing middle age.

        1. “I must be becoming conservative in my advancing middle age.”

          Experience has a way of doing that, if you are willing to learn from it.

      2. True, but not totally what I meant to say in my muddled post. And as you probably know “equity” is now the latest buzzword for the left. It’s no longer equality or equal opportunity or equal application of the law. It’s now equal results.
        As to the French and American revolutions: recall Rousseau’s line about “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains”? That, I think was the French view; that is men (“noble savages” Rousseau called them) needed to be freed by destroying the corrupt institutions that had harmed and imprisoned him. If society needed to be re-made (including the calendar!) then so be it. The ancien regime needed to be replaced, root and branch.
        The American revolutionaries thought the Crown was corrupt. But other British institutions – certainly English common law – were worthy of keeping or imitating. There was no desire to completely remake society. It was independence from England that was wanted not a total revolutionary break from it.

    2. One was based on individual rights (the one that worked, at least for a while), the other on The Collective (the bloody one that ended in tyranny after just a few years).

  24. Ah, the CHOP supporter glorifying The Great Terror with no sense of awareness as to how it all ended with the revolutionaries turning on each other. This millennial dunce would be offed by his own friends.

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